Why Kathleen Sebelius is safe
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
October 23, 2013 04:57 AM EDT
Kathleen Sebelius may be irreplaceable — in that she cannot be replaced.
Not because President Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to find someone else to do the job, or that anyone’s too pleased with the launch of the Obamacare website. But the White House and Democrats on the Hill know a potential confirmation fight would be so torturous and difficult that they’re better off sticking with the Health and Human Services secretary they’ve got, despite all that’s gone wrong on her watch.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Tuesday afternoon became the highest-ranking lawmaker to call for Sebelius’s resignation — part of a movement that picked up steam after she declined to appear at a scheduled House hearing Thursday, though she has committed to one next week. But even before the shutdown and debt ceiling standoff ended, the Republican National Committee launched its “Fire Sebelius” campaign, trying to use holding her responsible for the problem-plagued rollout as a way of redirecting the conversation back to doubts about the Affordable Care Act.
Those politics are exactly why Obama likely couldn’t and wouldn’t get rid of Sebelius, even if he wanted to: Democrats know the people opposed to the law would never let another person who backed the law through unscathed and would instead use the confirmation hearings to relitigate the Affordable Care Act — to subpoena reams of information, chase headline-grabbing leads and, overall, do whatever they could to delay or derail it.
Sebelius was originally picked for the job less because she was viewed as a visionary than as a competent manager who would be able to oversee the complex process with minimal hitches. Even so, the White House says the president doesn’t want her to go now, that he continues to have full confidence in her — and that despite the disappointments and the palpable fury in the West Wing, they’re working with her to set things right. In fact, administration officials cite the success she’s had at implementing other parts of the law besides the website as reasons to keep supporting her.
Asked Tuesday on CNN if she’d talked with Obama about resigning, Sebelius said, “What I talked about is doing the job that I came here to do. … I think my job is to get this fully implemented and to get the website working right. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
The feeling inside the West Wing is that the new focus on Sebelius is transparent, just another angle of attack from the same people who’ve been behind every other effort to resist the law.
“No one that the administration could pick to replace her could ever be confirmed — not even the Lord himself,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “The animus is such that they would find something to criticize Him over.”
And not just among Republicans — the thinking in some quarters is that, despite Democratic control of the Senate, vulnerable Democrats might benefit from getting to cast a vote against Obamacare by voting against any nominee. Avoiding that vote, people familiar with the situation say, is part of why there has been eagerness to see her stay in place for a second term, despite whatever problems or desire for change existed.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said the opportunity to reopen the case against Obamacare is indeed one of the main things driving him to call openly for Sebelius’s ouster, an effort he calls part of the same spectrum that led him and other Republicans to shut down the government on Oct. 1.
“I think that would be a healthy thing, for her to resign and we then begin the hearings,” Fleming said.
“Sebelius needs to be held responsible, but at the end of the day this is Obama’s health care law,” said RNC chairman Reince Priebus. “Any movement beyond Secretary Sebelius would need to include a full review of Obamacare and the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that have been wasted due to Obama’s ineptitude.”
Republicans have struggled with the logic that has them opposing Obamacare but also blasting someone because they’ve implemented Obamacare badly. But Fleming shrugged off the apparent contradiction, saying he could envision the right kind of successor getting confirmed.
“I think that if somebody came, even though they believed in it, but actually showed a track record of competency — maybe someone who comes from the insurance industry, not just somebody who was a political person who interacted with the insurance” — then that person could be confirmed, Fleming said. “It’s not whether they support Obamacare or not, it’s whether they can competently execute it.”
Fleming is in a safe district. But Democrats eagerly point out that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) announced his own call for Sebelius’s resignation the day after his primary challenger announced.
And Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli kicked off his week by saying that getting rid of Sebelius was the only way Obama could prove he’s “serious about cleaning up the mess he created.” On a Cuccinelli conference call Tuesday evening, Ryan said he agreed with the attorney general.
“If you’re charged with bringing in one of the biggest laws we’ve had in a generation, effectively taking over 18 percent of our economy, you claim that it’s going to be on time, you’re given warnings that it isn’t, but then you do it anyway,” Ryan said. “I think some people should be held responsible.”
Roberts said his position is more than just a roundabout way of undercutting Obamacare.
“It is true, I am opposed to the law itself, but this is also about accountability,” Roberts said. “Until I called for her to resign, we had no effort by the administration, no Rose Garden speeches from the president, we had nobody owning up to the failures of the implementation. I still want the law to be repealed and replaced, but I also want accountability for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that went into a failed rollout.”
No one believes that getting rid of Sebelius would actually satisfy Republicans. On the contrary, Manley said, “if the administration were to scapegoat someone, that would just further inflame the right.”
And none of this means that Democrats are happy with Sebelius themselves. The website that was, for most people, their first exposure to Obamacare was an admitted disaster, the kind of thing that gives Republicans proof to justify the “train wreck” line they’ve been pushing for months.
That’s created deep frustration and anger among people who put a lot on the line to get and keep the law — some of whom pointed to a New York Times article over the weekend headlined “Sebelius Stands Firm Despite Calls to Resign,” in which her only defenders were her brother and sister.
At his Rose Garden event Monday defending Obamacare, Obama didn’t have Sebelius stand with him, or even mention her name. But there she was in the front row center, her bright white hair peeking into the frame as she sat beside White House chief of staff Denis McDonough.
And the White House says the process of fixing the problems will be facilitated by keeping the experienced people there.
“There’s a benefit to bringing in a set of fresh eyes, but the people who have the blueprints are the ones with the best sense of how to solve the problem,” said a senior administration official.
GOP congressional leaders are, at least for now, remaining clear of the fight, declining to join the resignation calls.
“At this point she has an obligation to come before Congress and explain how she botched this so poorly,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“I don’t think anybody could administer this law. I think it can’t possibly work,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News Monday when asked if she should go.
Sebelius isn’t the only high-ranking HHS official Republicans could target. Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — which oversees Obamacare within the department — is also talked about as a potential person who could take responsibility, but her position is subject to Senate confirmation as well.
But while the White House remains uninterested in giving Republicans the chance at any kind of confirmation battle, there is a sense in some quarters that by making the safer choice, they’re actually taking more of a risk.
“The fear of a confirmation fight is misplaced,” said one Democratic strategist. “Democrats can win a confirmation fight — so long as Obama picks a stellar replacement.”
There aren’t a lot of names that circulate on that list, though. Some have raised the possibility of Deval Patrick, the term-limited governor who has overseen a working government mandate in Massachusetts, but beyond that the list isn’t long.
“You can almost guarantee the Republicans will over-react, overplay their hand and screw up a confirmation fight,” the strategist said. “What the Democrats cannot afford is a 2014 election focused over the incompetence of the rollout of their signature accomplishment. If I were a Democrat running in 2014, I would much rather have the confirmation fight than keep Sebelius.”